Ask a drama scholar what makes the history of theater special, and she will tell you about the incredible way exceptional plays make themselves felt across time. Edward Albee, the most gifted living American playwright, won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for A Delicate Balance, the story of an odd three-person household in an affluent New York City suburb whose lives are disrupted by the arrival of familiar neighbors who have been struck by a sudden, unnamable fear. In its original Broadway incarnation, it ran for only four months, but the performance of Marian Seldes as Claire earned her the Tony in 1967. In the Rubicon’s production of A Delicate Balance, the part of Claire-the hard-drinking, acerbically honest sister-will be played by Bonnie Franklin. I spoke with both Franklin and the play’s director, James O’Neill, on a recent afternoon, and they had this to say about the show:
Have you directed an Edward Albee play before?
James O’Neill: No. This is the first time I have directed an Albee play, but A Delicate Balance has long been in my mind. When I was a student at CalArts in 1973, there was a series of screenings in Los Angeles called American Film Theater. At the time I was involved with traditional theater as an actor, and I remember seeing the wonderful film of A Delicate Balance and thinking, well there is no way I will ever be old enough to play any of these roles [laughs], but I would still someday like to be involved in a production of this play. That’s because I felt that even though I did not share the time of life depicted : I still felt that the play’s core issue, which has to do with the complex, enduring bonds of friendship, was something that was incredibly important to me at the time :
Are you familiar with this role, or with Albee more generally? What is your character, Claire, like?
Bonnie Franklin: I have played Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, so I feel I know the Albee world pretty well. Claire is another woman who has a great facility with language, and a problem with alcohol, and a tendency-when these two factors combine-to wound those closest to her. There are moments of great clarity followed by rage and grief, but at bottom my sense is that, no matter how ugly Claire allows herself to become, there is love there.
How is this play special or different?
JO: Albee was originally thought of as an absurdist, because of things like The Sandbox. He was compared to Beckett and Pirandello. But then a noticeable difference began to emerge in his work-something that distinguished him from the so-called absurdists, even as he continued to employ some of their language-and this was the familiarity of his milieu. The dialogue may have had certain qualities that were profound and disturbing, but these were people we recognized, living in homes like ours, not existential tramps trapped in some wasteland. So when things like the unnamable fear are introduced and then left to the audience’s imagination, the impact is very powerful, because it’s happening close to home :
What is the “delicate balance”?
JO: The “delicate balance” of the title refers to the way networks of friends depend on patterns-there’s a line in the play where one of the characters asserts that “bounders bound and drunks get drunk,” and that’s kind of the point. If we are to exist in relation to one another in some specific, stable way, that requires that everyone continue to behave in the same way. Whether that pattern is a positive or negative one, you can count on it. It must be preserved, or the delicate balance will falter. Personal change becomes something that throws everyone off because it shifts the fulcrum. But people do change sometimes, for the better and for the worse, so everyone goes on seeking balance, and you have to keep adjusting to life.
Any parting words for your potential audience?
JO: Yes. First, the cast for this show is just incredible. And if I have any advice to the audience, it’s this: Stick with it. There will be moments in the first act when you might wonder, “Where is this going?” but then the neighbors will show up at the door right before the intermission, and it’s all very exciting from there on. The show asks the audience to think about who and what they love. : It’s an open-ended discussion that starts in the theater and just goes on :
A Delicate Balance previews tonight and tomorrow and opens officially on Saturday, September 22 at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura. For information and tickets, call 667-2900 or visit rubicontheatre.org.